The Other Babe
Babe Herman is a ghost, a memory drifting on the breeze that blows from right field.
It has been a decade since his death, even longer since he was a celebrity, a local hero recognized on street corners and approached in restaurants.
After all these years only the name remains, attached to a small baseball tournament
that comes each spring to a ballpark wedged hard against the green hills of Glendale.
High school teams gather here from across the state, playing from morning till night for four days.
“Babe Herman?” a young outfielder asks. “He was a player, right?”
The kids haven’t been around long enough to know “the other Babe.”
Even their coaches are hard-pressed to recall much about him. Even here, hardly anyone remembers Herman as one of the sweetest hitters--and most colorful characters--ever to wear a Dodger uniform.
The ghost lives in newspaper clippings, in stories told by a surviving son and guys who were rookies when Herman neared the end of his career with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League.
They describe a fresh-faced man, too tall and skinny to be considered graceful. Floyd Caves Herman compensated with pure talent.
“Oh, could he hit,” said Ed Reyes, a former teammate who is now 75 and living in Whittier.
“A line-drive hitter,” Reyes said. “Sometimes you couldn’t even get out of the way. You either caught it or got killed.”
Only a few thousand people lived in Glendale when Herman was a five-sport star at Glendale High in 1920. He claimed to have won nine events at a daytime track meet, hit a grand slam in an afternoon game, then played basketball that night.
Professional baseball took him to Edmonton of the Western Canadian League for a season, then to the Detroit Tigers. There, the great Ty Cobb gave him $200, sent him to the minors and told him not to swing for the fences--just aim for the pitcher’s forehead.
“Every time I didn’t get a hit for two or three games, I’d remember what Ty said,” Herman recalled in 1986. “That was pretty good advice.”
Somewhere along the line, somebody mentioned that he resembled Babe Ruth, so he had a new nickname by the time he broke into the majors with Brooklyn in 1926.
Herman finished second for the batting crown twice, hitting .381 in 1929 and .393 the following season. In 1930, he also had 130 runs batted in.
“I never tried to lead the league in hits,” he said. “I just tried to win ballgames.”
Hitting was a matter of determination and agility for the left-hander.
“He used to tell me to wait on the ball,’ said Cliff Dapper, a former teammate. “Wait a little longer, follow the ball and swing quick at the end.”
It was speed, not power, that made Herman dangerous.
“He’d take batting practice and say ‘Well, I think I can wait on the ball tonight,’ ” Dapper said. “Then he’d go out and hit it off the right-field wall.”
But while Herman was a budding star, he also played for a Brooklyn team known as “the Daffiness Boys,” the clowns of the National League. The right fielder from Southern California was a likely candidate.
“My dad was gangly,” his son, Don Herman, said. “He was 6-4 and 180 pounds, so he looked very awkward.”
And for all his prowess with a bat, he had problems in the field.
There were tricky caroms off the right-field wall at Ebbets Field--an uneven, unpredictable beast. There were occasional drops.
As John Lardner once wrote: “Floyd Caves Herman did not always catch fly balls on the top of his head, but he could do it in a pinch.”
Contrary to Brooklyn folklore, Herman never had a ball bounce off his head. Maybe off his shoulder.
“The shoulder don’t count,” he would say.
His gaffes were exaggerated because he played on bad teams, Casey Stengel said. A case in point: though Herman is one of six Dodgers to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases in a season, he was better known for an extraordinary error on the basepaths his rookie season.
With the bases loaded against Boston, Herman slammed a drive off the wall. A runner scored from third. Dazzy Vance, who was on second, rounded third and headed home. Chick Fewster, who had started on first, was almost to third.
Then Herman tried to stretch a double into a triple, chugging hard with the third-base coach yelling “Back, back.”
Vance heard the call and mistakenly turned back. Fewster was caught between the retreating Vance and the charging Herman.
When the dust settled, Vance was safe back at third. Fewster was out at third because Vance was entitled to the bag. Herman was out for passing Fewster on the basepath during all the commotion.
No matter that the winning run had scored. People remembered Lardner’s quip: “Babe Herman did not triple into a triple play, but he doubled into a double play, which is the next best thing.”
The ghost lives in numbers.
Only three major leaguers have hit for the cycle three times. Herman is one of them.
No Dodger has had more hits than his 241 in 1930. No Dodger has had a higher slugging percentage (.678) or on-base percentage (.455) for a season.
And that swing was smooth enough to land him a role as Gary Cooper’s stand-in for the long shots in “Pride of the Yankees.”
So Herman never took much offense at the “Daffiest of the Dodgers” label the writers pinned on him.
“They had to make a living too,” he said.
His son explained: “My dad’s attitude was . . . as long as he got his name in the papers, he got paid.”
Those glorious times in Brooklyn lasted only six years. The Dodgers traded him in 1932, sending him on a sojourn through Cincinnati, Chicago, Pittsburgh and back to Detroit.
In 1939, he landed home with the Hollywood Stars.
The PCL hoped to become a third major league back then. The Stars featured rookies such as Dapper, who would play for Brooklyn, and fading talents such as Chicago Cub pitcher Charlie Root and Wally Berger, a slugger from Boston.
Herman took it upon himself to coach the younger guys.
“When we’d take long train trips to Portland and Seattle, you could sit next to him and he’d help you with hitting or tell you stories about when he played for Brooklyn,” Dapper recalled.
Reyes said: “I don’t know what his IQ was, but it was 150 when he talked about baseball. He knew everything.”
He also owned a poultry ranch in the San Fernando Valley, not far from where his father had once tended a peach orchard. Herman brought smoked turkeys to the clubhouse, a treat for players who didn’t make much money.
“That was a real delicious thing,” Dapper said.
At the behest of Leo Durocher, Herman returned to the Dodgers as a pinch-hitter in 1945. He hit .265 in 37 games that season.
But it will forever be recorded in “The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball” that Herman hit a line drive in his first at-bat that season--and fell rounding first base.
A Popular Figure
When his career finally ended in 1967, after some years of coaching and scouting, the .324 lifetime hitter returned to Glendale and his wife Ann.
If Herman regretted missing the Hall of Fame by a few votes, he did not let disappointment taint his final years.
A small greenhouse in his backyard was filled with orchids that he grew and entered in shows. He and Ann, who were high school sweethearts, often traveled.
“My dad was the kind of person who would sit in the lobby of a hotel and just talk to people,” Don Herman said. “Next thing you know, they’d be corresponding. My mother had a book full of addresses.”
When the city named a Little League field and a high school tournament after him, Herman made a point of attending games.
“Nice guy,” said Tony Zarrillo, the Glendale High coach. “He would talk to the kids.”
After a series of strokes, Herman died in 1987. He was 84.
His picture graced the cover of the program for the 35th annual Babe Herman tournament in Verdugo Park this week. It was also on a T-shirt given to each player.
The kids might not have known anything about his career, but they saw his name and his face.
“Hey Coach,” the young outfielder called out. “How come you didn’t teach us about Babe Herman?”